Is the U.S. Above the Law?

U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’s discounting of the Geneva Conventions and the Bush administration’s opposition to other international laws and treaties suggest that the U.S. government has embarked on a dangerous course of pursuing its own interests with impunity at the expense of international justice.

Gonzales’s failure to unequivocally answer several questions asked at his January 6th confirmation hearing indicates that the Bush administration is still seeking to evade the absolute prohibition on torture, and that prisoners held by the U.S. remain at risk of further ill-treatment.

In his famous “torture memo,” Gonzales described the Geneva Conventions as “quaint,” and advised the Bush administration of ways to skirt international law while reducing the risk of criminal liability.

This is merely the latest example (that we know of) of the Bush administration’s ongoing opposition to international justice treaties and conventions, including the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

In the case of the ICC, the U.S. is the only state that is actively opposed to it. 97 countries have now ratified or acceded to the Rome Statute of the ICC, which will seek to prosecute people accused of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, where their home state is unwilling or unable to try them.

Under the Bush administration, the U.S. has conducted a worldwide campaign to weaken the ICC and to obtain immunity for all U.S. nationals from its jurisdiction.

The aforementioned Optional Protocol to the UN Convention Against Torture, which the U.S. also opposes, will establish a system of international and national monitoring of detention facilities. The hiding by U.S. agents of detainees from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Iraq, and the denial of access to others held in detention without charge or trial at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere, suggest a government that does not look favorably on external scrutiny of its own actions.

Yet it was President Bush who said in June of 2003 that it is “notorious human rights abusers” who seek to “shield their abuses from the eyes of the world” by “denying access to international human rights monitors.”

Both before and after his statement, detainees in U.S. custody were subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment in Afghanistan, Guantanamo, and Iraq, with international human rights monitors denied access.

For the protection of all the world’s citizens, there should be no double standards in international justice and no immunity for anyone, under any circumstances, for offenses such as genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.

As the world’s sole superpower, the U.S. has a moral responsibility to set a positive example for international cooperation and accountability. To suggest that the U.S. should be exempt from ICC jurisdiction, or to claim that the Geneva Conventions don’t apply in arbitrarily selected cases, risks the appearance of an arrogant presumption that the U.S. considers itself above the law.

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